Defining these generations is surprisingly difficult; the first obvious finding is that there is little agreement on what constitutes a “generation” and a similar lack of consensus on how to refer to them. While most scholars agree on the timespan of the baby boom (1946–1965), as this is an observable phenomenon in birth rates (fig. 1), the phenomenon does not neatly fit with many common conceptions of a generation. As such, the timespan of Generation X is not settled. One attempt to standardize and define the generations for the sake of future study and discussion was J. Markert’s 2004 paper on age demographics and the confusion inherent in trying to define an audience by birth years. Markert proposes to segment the generations into 20-year spans: Boomers birth years falling between 1946–1965; Gen Xers’ falling between 1966–1985; Gen Ys’ falling between 1986–2005. These spans would be further segmented into cohorts (ten-year segments) and bihorts (five-year segments), with the inner ten year cohorts referred to as “core” and the outer five year bihorts described as “cusper.” Therefore, if one were born in 1972 (as this author was) he would be considered a Core Gen Xer. If one were born in 1988, he would be considered an Early Cusper Gen Y.
While Boomers have usually been considered “Boomers,” they have also been referred to as “the Silent Generation,” “the Spock Generation,” “the Now Generation,” “the Woodstock Generation” and “the Me Generation” (Kitch, 2003). Labeling succeeding generations has proven troublesome as well. “Generation X” is somewhat more well-known and accepted than “Generation Y,” but there are many competing phrases. A novel by Douglas Coupland titled Generation X was the first and seminal usage of that phrase (Coupland, 1991), but this generation has also been referred to as “Baby Busters,” “the Now Generation” (Herbig, Koehler, & Day, 1993), “Slackers,” “Generation Next,” “Twentysomethings” (Stepp, 1996), “the New Petulants” (Kitch, 2003), “Postboomers,” “Generation 2000,” “the Shadow Generation,” “the MTV Generation,” “the Thirteeners” (Wolburg & Pokrywczynski, 2001), “the Bellwether Generation” (Roberts, 2000) and even the “F-You Generation” (Roberts & Manolis, 2000). Note that Kitch cites Time magazine as specifically identifying Boomers as “the Now Generation” and less than ten years later, Paul Herbig et al (1993) used the same moniker to refer to Xers. Even the moniker “Generation X” has conflicting implications and many people are confused by it (Poindexter & Lasorsa, 1999). Likewise, Gen Ys have been labeled “millennials” (Geraci & Nagy, 2004; Syrett & Lammiman, 2004), “Echo Boomers,” “N-Gen” (Wolburg & Pokrywczynski, 2001) and “Generation 9-11” (Kitch, 2003).
For the purpose of this research, Markert’s 2004 birth spans are employed to demarcate Boomers, Xers and Ys, regardless of how subjects in the studies are identified.
Baby boomers represent one of the most studied, criticized and documented generations in American history. The “pig in the python” has arguably inspired attention to the very phenomenon of generational identity by virtue of its own novelty. The sudden surge of births in the 20 years following World War II, followed by a distinctive decline of births in the late sixties and seventies, gave shape and definition to a massive segment of population.
Advertisers and communications scholars have grown keen to ascertain this group’s attitudes toward advertising, particularly on television, and many studies exist on the topic. The findings of the earlier studies were sobering to advertisers: first among dominant attitudes of Boomers toward advertising was rampant skepticism and distrust. One 1974 study found that 84% of  respondents indicated that over half the advertising they viewed insulted their intelligence. More than 75% indicated that more than half the advertising they saw was irritating (Haller, 1974). Another study found that Boomers consider advertising “offensive, useless, [offering] little benefit to society, and [leading] to higher prices, and that marketing practitioners were not socially responsible.” (Roberts & Manolis, 2000).
As Boomers matured, they exhibited an increasing distaste for shopping malls, marketing efforts and messages intended for younger generations (Roberts & Manolis, 2000). They used and relied on newspapers to provide information with which to make purchasing decisions, and consider newspaper advertising more informative and less annoying than advertising on television (Larkin & Grotta, 1977). Boomers also relied more on newspapers for information-gathering when considering a purchase (Harmon, Webster, & Weyenberg, 1999). “Word of mouth” is important and reputation is crucial; a marketer who is caught being deceptive or otherwise manipulative will not be trusted again, and the bad experience is much more likely to be related to peers (Leventhal, 1997).
As the Boomers enter their 50s—those born between 1946–1965 are age 42–61 in 2007—studies have been done searching for the underlying causes of these attitudes. While deception in advertising has been endemic to the profession since its inception, it is very difficult to identify, measure and thus control (Gardner, 1975). The FTC and advertising associations have attempted to moderate the amount of outright deception in the industry, but it continues to be an issue.
Market research in the 50+ demographic is a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until the early eighties that advertisers began to show even an awareness of this formidable demographic; before then, business’ interests seemed to focus exclusively on younger adults (<50), and marketing data about the buying and media usage habits of the 50+ market segment, such as Nielsen ratings, was not even gathered (Moschis, 2003). What little advertising was targeted to this demographic—in the absence of any research or understanding of it—clearly showed its lack of understanding of them. Many such advertisements failed.
How Boomers respond to advertising is informed by a number of factors, the most important of which are family and peer relationships (Moore & Moschis, 1978). Boomers are more likely than Gen Xers or Ys to have been raised in two-parent households (Herbig et al., 1993; Abelman, 1996; Morton, 2003), so they are said to be more naturally reliant on—and a product of—their social networks for opinion and advice regarding purchasing behavior and attitudes toward advertising.
A paper published in 1997 by Cary Silvers offered another approach: adults in their 50s experience more life-changing events than in any other decade of life, such as loss of mother and/or father, menopause, divorce, birth of a grandchild, major diet changes and so on (fig. 2). These changes force a redefining of life roles, with more such “redefinements” occuring between the ages of 50–59 than at any other time in life. These changes not only present new opportunities for marketing and advertising, but also shape the way adults view advertising aimed at them. For example, very few adults over the age of 50 consider themselves “old” or relate to images of people over 50 in advertising; they instead prefer being addressed in the context of life experiences, and resent being expected to behave like old people (Moschis, 2003).
The generation succeeding the Boomers grew up in an age of unprecedented media saturation. With the cable television explosion of the late seventies/early eighties as well as the advent of market-targeted magazines, television shows and other vehicles (“specialty” products, movie/TV product placement, event sponsorships), the eighties and nineties were a media-rich environment—advertising messages were anywhere and everywhere.
This was not untrue for Boomers necessarily. However, most Gen Xers’ childhood was spent in the company of television. With divorce and single parenthood increasing significantly since the sixties, Gen Xers were often raised in stepfamilies and shared custody. This may be a contributing factor to their tendency toward personal independence (Herbig et al., 1993; Morton, 2003; Robertson, Ward, Gatignon & Klees, 1989) and materialism (Buijzen & Valkenburg, 2003).
Xers are also acutely consumer-conscious. This generation has spent more time in malls than any other, and has distinctly consumer-minded preoccupations with money and shopping (Roberts & Manolis, 2000). They have much higher per-capita spending than Boomers—and also give more to charities and churches than Boomers (Herbig et al., 1993). To a Gen Xer, spending money is a way of life. Some perceive Xers to have a bleak economic future ahead of them (Abelman, 1996; Morton, 2003; Rindfleisch, 1994) while others claim they “should be the most economically successful generation since the depression babies which came of age in the 1950s.” (Herbig et al., 1993), and will have an easier go of things in the workforce because they will face less competition with each other (Harmon et al., 1999).
While Gen Xers are highly skeptical of advertising, they are nonetheless accepting of advertising messages they find informative or relevant. They are acutely critical of advertising which is disingenuous or untruthful (Beard, 2003). They also tend to be dismissive of that which they don’t find useful (Roberts & Manolis, 2000). Xers, having been raised in a media world that constantly demands their attention, learn at a young age how to be skeptical, discerning and judicious with it. Boush, Friestad and Rose’s 1994 study showed a skepticism of advertising as early as 6th grade (age 12); Brucks, Armstrong & Goldberg (1988) showed evidence of skepticism toward advertising in 4th graders (age 9).
Karen Ritchie (1995) describes Gen Xers’ as being “media connoisseurs, who can and do browse the electronic landscape, selecting what interests them most. If Boomers view television from a passive state of mind, Xers have a more organic relationship with the media… One’s attention is focused on the medium, but with an ulterior purpose, and if the medium does not respond with entertainment or involving information, it is quickly discarded in favor of more fruitful pastures.”
A number of studies have been conducted to compare attitudes toward advertising of Boomers to those of Gen Xers. The most direct comparison of these two generations was published in 2000 by James Roberts and Chris Manolis. Roberts & Manolis found that Xers were generally predisposed more favorably toward advertising than Boomers. Xers were slower to judge advertising as being offensive or useless, and did not blame advertising for higher retail prices to the extent that Boomers did. The researchers also found that Xers had a somewhat more liberal idea of what constituted “marketing” than Boomers. By contrast, Boomers were shown to have less tolerance and greater criticism of advertising as insulting, offensive and having little benefit in society.
The Roberts/Manolis study also investigated dysfunctional consumer behavior, such as compulsive spending and shoplifting. Their results indicated that Generation X exhibited significantly greater tendencies toward these behaviors than Boomers, as predicted by Rindfleisch (1994). Rindfleisch argued that Gen Xers would be more likely to exhibit these behaviors because they tend to be more materialistic and driven by instant gratification than Boomers, have less parental contact (as a result of single-parent upbringing, or broken homes) and would (statistically) come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than their parents did.
Another study comparing advertising attitudes of Boomers to Xers, though not by name, was published in 1989 by J. Andrews. In it a foundational survey of 1,846 [Boomers] by Bauer & Greyser (1968) was compared against a contemporary survey of some 1,500 participants in six US universities. Andrews was interested primarily in what value judgments drove attitudes toward advertising rather than intergenerational shifts in them. His results showed that Bauer & Greyser’s dual “dimensions of beliefs” (social/economic) were a valid tool with which to conduct such studies, and that the overall negative predisposition of college students (Gen Xers, in Andrews’ case) toward advertising had not changed.
A similar study published in 1993 challenged the notion that Bauer & Greyser’s long-accepted two “dimensions” were sufficient, and instead postulated seven (fig. 3), then compared their responses with those of the 1968 Bauer & Greyser study. They found that Boomers’ attitudes were primarily based on social concerns, and that they responded more strongly to factors such as “corrupts values” and “product information” while the younger test group responded to predominantly economic factors like “better living” and “good for the economy” (Pollay & Mittal, 1993). Results like these no doubt contribute to the perception of Gen X as being more materialistic and less idealistic than Boomers (Roberts & Manolis, 2000).
As children, Gen Xers are suspicious of advertising from an early age, as Boomers were (Moore & Moschis, 1975). X kids, however, seemed more contemptuous, and at an earlier age ( Boush et al., 1994). Those participating in the Moore/Moschis study indicated less of a relationship between exposure to TV ads and consumer behavior and thus more ambivalent toward it. It would appear, then, that as Boomers aged, they grew more skeptical and judgmental toward advertising in general, whereas Xers grew up to become less so. It could be hypothesized that Boomers’ dislike of advertising correlates with its perceived usefulness to them, as Xers have been shown to have a much more utilitarian approach to advertising. One study found that X kids could spot techniques used in advertising as early as fourth grade, but were not often conscious of them unless specifically asked about them or “primed” to watch for them (Brucks et al., 1988). Kids weren’t necessarily inclined to “cognitively defend” against them until they grew older.
In 1989 researchers sought to compare influences of TV advertising on socialization tendencies US and UK children (Gen Xers) with those on Japanese children. The study showed that Japanese children were affected in much the same way as Western children were, in spite of different viewing habits. While Japanese children watched less TV then the more independent American or British kids, parent/child conflict correlated with increased exposure to advertising (Robertson et al., 1989). American adolescents also show a strong relationship between socialization and marketplace knowledge, and skepticism of advertising. A 1998 study of 296 high school students (Gen Xers) revealed that attitudes towards advertising were strongly influenced by relationships with parents, peers and TV usage (Mangelburg & Bristol, 1998).
A study published in 2003 compared contemporary college students (Late Xers, Early Ys) to those of a 1977 study in the context of attitudes toward advertising’s ethical consequences. Both studies indicated a strong skepticism, but the contemporary group was more willing to accept the presence of advertising. Today’s students, however, were particularly critical of advertising which was misleading or untruthful. This supports the notion that Gen Xers (and Ys) rely on advertising as a tool in their purchase decision-making process, and expect the information gleaned from advertising to be useful in that regard (Beard, 2003).
Some scholars believe that studies on the “generalizability” of communications research involving Gen X to other generations is inadvisable, citing observable and anecdotal tendencies toward apathy, cynicism and poor scholastic performance among Gen Xers. As stated by Robert Abelman (1996), “To suggest that one can generalize from a sample of today’s students to the general population—particularly regarding issues of media uses, gratifications and impact—is sheer folly. Media professionals, whose livelihoods are dependent on numerous other fields of study, realize this … The social sciences need to respond accordingly.”
The “baby bust” which defined Generation X for many, came to an end in 1979. Birth rates again soared as Boomers matured and started having kids. This surge in birth rates was dubbed the “echo boom” by some. Although this review defines Gen Ys according to Markert’s (2004) 1986–2005 timespan, the surge in birthrates has for the most part sustained itself into the 21st century, and still defines the generation known as Generation Y.
Gen Ys, like the Xers before them, grew up in a digital media-saturated world of personal computers, cellular phones, compact discs, GameBoys, PDAs, email and the World Wide Web. Hundreds of cable channels flooded living rooms across the country, including many that were targeted specifically to them as children. Gen Xers (with cable) had Nickelodeon growing up; Gen Ys today have Nickelodeon, NickToons, Noggin/The-N, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Disney Channel, Toon Disney, PBS Kids Sprout, Nick GAS, Discovery Kids, and so on. Gen Ys receive over 20,000 commercial messages a year, are far more aware of when someone is attempting to manipulate or persuade them, and have a marked lower tolerance for pretense and hypocrisy than previous generations (Syrett & Lammiman, 2004).
Further, digital media is a key distinction between Gen X’s media world growing up, and that in which Gen Y grew up. Digital media is not only sharper, clearer and more easily handled by electronic devices (solid-state versus mechanical, for instance), but it can be manipulated, customized, turned inside out if the user wishes. Gen X’s use of media was mostly constrained to magnetic tape, timeshifting and generational loss of quality (as copies of copies are produced, quality deteriorates), whereas Gen Y, as children, learned that music, video and even advertising can be reined, controlled and mastered.
This control over media, including personal computing and “desktop publishing,” has further demystified the media to Gen Ys. With a modest investment in a video recorder and a personal computer, even grade school-aged Gen Ys can produce a video. As such, television is no longer the mysterious, all-powerful media it was for Boomers and Xers. The surge of reality programming and low-budget examples like “Wayne’s World,” “Mystery Science Theater” and others have not only cultivated in Gen Ys a better understanding of television but also a challenge to the facade of celebrity; because “regular people” are more and more being featured on television, the perceived distance between these and celebrities has shrunk. For advertisers, this means celebrities have less selling power for Gen Ys as they do for Xers and Boomers (Morton, 2002).
Few studies concerning Gen Y’s attitudes toward advertising have been undertaken to date, as the oldest of this generation is 22 in 2007. Of the research that has been done is a 2004 study on ethicality of sexual and fear appeals in advertising (Maciejewski, 2004). It found that Gen Y college students, women especially, are particularly sensitive to sex appeals.
In addition, an extensive psychographic analysis of Gen Y college students was published in 2001. This analysis showed a higher than expected attitudes toward TV advertising. The researchers attributed this to the “expansive role TV has played in the lives of this generation. They’ve been raised on it, they’ve been taught by it, and they find a lot more things of value on it compared to other generations.” (Wolburg & Pokrywczynski, 2001) This study also compliments the findings of Larkin & Grotta (1977)—while Gen Y considers newspaper advertising more informative relative to that in other media, readership is declining in favor of more targeted vehicles such as lifestyle/special-interest magazines (Wolburg & Pokrywczynski, 2001; Geraci & Nagy, 2004).
The limited number of Gen Y studies, however, do indicate that Generation Y is watching unprecedented amounts of television compared to children of previous generations, and that they are distinctly more media savvy and critical when it comes to advertising on television. One study published in 2005 contrasted Gen Y children’s awareness and attitudes of advertising with children in a study conducted by Thomas Robinson and John Rossiter in 1974. The 2005 study found that Gen Y is “far more sophisticated in terms of their understanding of advertising than children born only a decade or two before… The older children in the present sample [11-12-year-olds] clearly understood the persuasive intent of advertising as evidenced by their high degree of skepticism and mistrust of ads.” (Mallalieu, Palan, & Lacziak, 2005)
Researchers in yet another study compared advertising skepticism in Japanese children versus that of US children. The sample group was a combination of late Xers and early Ys. The study found that both cultures regarded advertising with predominantly negative attitudes that worsened with age. However, Japanese teenagers who felt they had more direct influence on purchases had a more favorable view of advertising than those who did not. The finding lends additional support to the notion that teenagers, who “need” advertising to help them make purchase decisions, are more receptive to it (Sherry, Greenberg, & Tokinoya, 1999).
Other studies indicate that Gen Ys have thrown themselves wholly into the internet age. In 2003 internet usage actually exceeded TV viewership for the first time in history, and surveys indicated that they use traditional media as a springboard for online activity. In the words of these researchers: “The internet is… the nexus for their much-sought activities and content. … The internet dominates and is the preferred medium for 16 of the 28 activities and 16 of the 32 content areas studied. … To reach them, you must go where they are, and the internet has evolved from an interesting tool to the central medium in their lives.” (Geraci & Nagy, 2004, italics in original)